Critics like Michael Jacobsen of the Center for Science in the Public Interest say Olestra is a "public health time bomb."
He has warned that Procter & Gamble's artificial, calorie-free fat, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month for use in chips and snack foods "will cause everything from diarrhea to cancer, heart disease and blindness."
That's not what a decade of studies indicates, said Steve Benedict, a Kansas University microbiologist who is a member of the FDA's expert panel that evaluated Olestra and recommended its approval.
Still, Benedict acknowledged in a recent interview with the Journal-World that some questions remain about whether Olestra's leaching of compounds called carotenoids, common in many vegetables, will be harmful to humans.
But he said the FDA's hands were tied given its rules for evaluating the safety of new foods.
"The rules sort of restrict you," said Benedict, who became a member of the Advisory Committee to the FDA's Center for Food Safety in November 1994.
"Those of us on the committee have to go with the data we're presented. We're not allowed to ask for more data."
Studies with animals have shown no long-term damage as a result of eating Olestra, Benedict said.
"The question of the carotenoids was the sticky one for everyone, and I admit having a lot of doubts myself," he said.
But an expert on carotenoids told the advisory panel that there was scientific uncertainty about the benefits, if any, of carotenoids.
"I admit to still having reservations about this, mostly with people who are going to overdo it, especially teen-agers and maybe elderly people," Benedict said.
"There's a finite probability that there will be harm, but we couldn't find it with lots of questions. And because we couldn't find a crevice in the data we were forced to go with approval."